Karen Larsen shines a beacon of innovation from Yolo County, where she has led the Health and Human Services Agency since May 2016, with a special focus on knocking down silos and redefining what it means to provide whole-person, whole-community care.
In her role as director, Karen has had the courage to embrace change and experimentation — but always grounded in accountability. Decisions about structure, staffing and allocation of services are driven by outcomes. Data collection is a constant, guided by the principles: How much did we do? How well did we do it? Is anyone better off?
As agency director, and before that, county Mental Health Director, Karen has forged a network of care that works across departments to support mental and physical health. That means marrying mental health treatment with services for related needs such as education, housing, employment and parental support. It means partnering law enforcement and clinicians to make it more likely that people struggling with mental illness end up in treatment rather than jail.
Among the standout programs she has helped shepherd in Yolo: A celebrated mental health court. A thriving peer support network. An urgent care clinic tailored to people in mental health crisis. A specialized clinic for early intervention in psychosis-related illness. A community college wellness center. A low-income housing project incorporating services for the formerly homeless and people who have struggled with mental health. The “Bridge to Housing” pilot that moved dozens of people from homeless encampments into permanent housing. A foster care model that offers ongoing training for foster parents and mental health support for foster youth.
It’s a long list, and still doesn’t capture the whole. Thank you, Karen, for reminding us that good leadership can be both smart and compassionate. And for giving voice to the many county leaders out there working for powerful change.